The last time Dar Williams was in Moab sharing her poetic gifts, she wasn’t performing through music and storytelling as she has several times in the past. She was interviewing people in the community, to better understand the mechanisms behind the inspiration she’s drawn from being here.
Those interviews culminated in a chapter focused on Moab in her newly released book, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities.” On Saturday, Sept. 16, from 7 to 9 p.m., Williams will perform and share readings and a discussion of the book.
Williams performed at the Moab Folk Festival in 2015, and returned not long after to conduct interviews for the book. She became enamored of the town more than two decades earlier, however. She recounts in the book returning to Moab in 1998 just to vacation – which she “never (does)” – a few years after playing a house concert here.
After three days of floating the river, running, hiking and biking through town and the national parks, she says in the book, “… (We) truly hoped we had been good guests. We didn’t just want to visit again. We wanted to be welcomed back.”
Experiences like that were the seed for the book and its thesis, which is that when towns build on what she calls “positive proximity,” they thrive, she told the Moab Sun News.
In the book, she offers general categories as the keys to building positive proximity: indoor and outdoor spaces that maximize good interactions in town, projects that build a town’s identity, and an abstract quality of “Translation,” which can be found when diverse human characters find ways to speak a common language.
“I think this career turns you into a sociologist, because you’re never going to get good coffee if you can’t figure out how a town comes together,” Williams told the Moab Sun News. “You sort of seek out the warmth of a community; you have to be a heat seeker. I couldn’t have my career if it weren’t for this phenomenon of people choosing to work together.”
Written over the course of two years, the book includes extensive research into urban sociology, informed by academic professionals, her own observations and especially community members themselves.
In the chapter on Moab, Williams shares keen observations of Moab’s unique offerings to visitors like herself, noting that a tourist on foot is delighted to find Moab has well-traveled locals pointing out petroglyphs on the walls along canyon trails, and a big drugstore offering socks in the middle of Main Street.
Once a music festival organizer himself, Back of Beyond Books store owner Andy Nettell said he appreciates Williams’ perspective.
“It’s an interesting aspect of dealing with traveling musicians,” Nettell said. “These road warriors who’ve traveled 200 nights of the year put their hearts into connecting with audiences. We who live in these communities maybe have blinders on to the value – the coolness – of the things they see. It gave me a new appreciation for where I live.”
Nettell is part of a cross-section of Moab community members who share personal experiences and insight into the city’s history and current cultural and economic situation in the chapter.
Ultimately, the book characterizes Moab as a town that has marshaled its resources to meet challenges, and in the process developed a treasure chest of positive proximity.
Williams puts Moab in the company of American towns that walk the knife’s edge between sustainable growth and preserving human character and the natural environment, drawing parallels with communities from Seattle to Ithaca, New York.
“When you’ve got the power of nature as your common denominator, as Moab does, you’ve got an opportunity to be influenced by its beauty, letting it guide a shared sense of wonder, abundance, and generosity,” she says in the book.
The concert and book reading at Star Hall is sponsored by Back of Beyond Books and the Moab Folk Festival. Tickets are $18 in advance online at moabfolkfestival.com and at Back of Beyond Books, or $20 at the door.
Beloved folk musician and author’s new book features chapter about Moab
What: Dar Williams concert and reading
When: Saturday, Sept. 16, at 7 p.m.
Where: Star Hall, 159 E Center St.
Cost: $18 in advance; $20 at the door. Tickets online at moabfolkfestival.com or at Back of Beyond Books, 83 N. Main St.